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Making Good Inventors Great

Myhrvold and Jung have been highly secretive about exactly who is involved with the Invention Factory, and their interviews with Technology Review mark their first public remarks on the subject. They will say that on the still-in-formation board of advisors is Dean Kamen, the New Hampshire-based inventor who earned recent fame for his Segway personal transporter.

Since Kamen already has his own operation, Deka Research and Development, which includes an extensive laboratory, he says he’ll remain an advisor rather than one of the staff inventors. Even more than creating new ideas, Kamen sees the goal of the Invention Factory as applying existing inventions to unforeseen problems. “There is a large amount of intellectual property developed around specific applications that might have bigger applications in new fields,” he says. “Many of the six million [United States-issued] patents solved a need but now could be applied to a different need. Clearly, if there was a way to systematize the application of new intellectual property, it would be tremendous.”

So instead of signing up well-entrenched inventors like Kamen, Myhrvold and Jung have been on the lookout for accomplished inventors who don’t already run their own large enterprises; they’re especially interested in inventors who have proved their mettle by winning patents worth millions of dollars in royalties and license fees. “Dozens of these people have made enormous amounts of money,” Myhrvold says. In return for their involvement, these independent inventors would receive an entire legal and support infrastructure: attorneys to file patent applications, draft licensing agreements and litigate disputes; and an administrative staff that can perform patent searches and other work. In addition, the company would match different inventors together on particular projects in order to maximize the chance of a breakthrough. “A lot of good inventors can be great if paired with a great inventor,” says Jung.

Among the first inventors to pledge their involvement is Leroy Hood, 63, who developed the automated DNA-sequencing machine while at Caltech in the 1980s. In late 1999, after eight years at the University of Washington, Hood left academia to start the private Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle. “He’s got some stock in companies, but has he gotten what he’s worth?” Myhrvold asks. “Probably not.” Hood says he is especially interested in brainstorming new inventions at “the intersection of information technology and biology.” “That is something that can be done uniquely with Ed and Nathan,” he says. “I’m committed to exploring this opportunity.”

Myhrvold cites Ronald A. Katz, a Los Angeles-based inventor who has reportedly made hundreds of millions of dollars by licensing his 25-plus patents on touch-tone telephone menus to companies such as AT&T, WorldCom, the Vanguard Group, American Express, IBM and Microsoft, as another example of the kind of innovator he’s looking for. Brian Rivette, of Ronald A. Katz Technology Licensing, would only confirm that Katz knows Myhrvold.

Even though many of the inventors they want to woo are already well heeled, Myhrvold and Jung think the Invention Factory’s compensation plan, one they say may never have been attempted in the past, will be appealing. At most corporate labs, researchers sign over rights to royalties and licensing fees in return for a steady salary. Invention Factory inventors will also receive modest salaries-after all, says Jung, “you can’t take a future royalty stream to the grocery store”-but they will split licensing revenue or royalties on their inventions with the company (though Jung and Myhrvold won’t specify the percentages).

In attempting to make a business out of inventing, the Invention Factory will refrain from launching Silicon Valley-type startups, Myhrvold adds. Product development and marketing cost too much, he says, and would distract the enterprise from the inventing of new things. “The world has lots of companies to take products to market,” he says. “When you set out to create important inventions as your primary goal, it takes you to a different place.”

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